On October 15, 1997 Cassini launched from Earth on its mammoth journey to the mysterious gas giant lurking at the edge of our solar system – Saturn. Now, almost 20 years later, it all comes to an end in dramatic, fiery fashion.
Throughout its odyssey, Cassini sent back a wealth of information for us Earthlings to pour over. Named after the 17th century Italian-French astronomer who first discovered the division between Saturn’s rings, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the probe has made numerous startling discoveries about the planet and its moons.
Cassini detected hydrogen from hydrothermal vents in ice plumes from Saturn’s ocean-bearing moon, Enceladus, leading scientists to theorise that the moon could harbour alien life.
It also found that Titan, another moon, was an Earth-like world complete with lakes and seas and, deep beneath its surface, a large internal ocean.
Cassini began its grand finale in April with a series of 22 dives between Saturn and its rings. The dives have so far revealed that the gap itself is free of almost anything at all – even spacedust.
The explorer will begin its final descent Friday into the dark heart of the solar system’s second biggest planet. At roughly 07:55 EDT (11:55 GMT) Cassini will dive into the planet’s atmosphere. It will send back information up until the moment its antenna points away from Earth, before eventually burning up in its atmosphere like a meteor.